Neighbor held for trial in deadly dispute
Clayton P. Carter III wanted to be sure.
He had just fired a shot from his .380 caliber semi-automatic at his neighbor, George Brooks Jennings, with whom he had been having a long running dispute and who was confronting him once again outside their side-byside homes on Box Elder Drive in West Goshen. But he did not know whether the bullet had struck Jennings, or whether he was faking injury when he fell to the ground on his back.
So — according to testimony from a West Goshen detective who interviewed him about six hours after the shooting that left Jennings, a 51-year-old father of one, fatally wounded — Carter moved towards him, raised his weapon again, and fired directly into Jennings’ head.
“He told me he shot Mr. Jennings twice,” Detective David S. Maurer testified in Magisterial District Judge William Kraut’s courtroom during a 90-minute long preliminary hearing, at the conclusion of which Kraut or-
dered Carter held for trial on charges of first-degree murder, third-degree murder, voluntary manslaughter, aggravated assault, weapons not to be carried without a license, and possession of an instrument of crime.
“The first shot, he didn’t know if it hit him or not,” Maurer said under questioning from Deputy District Attorney Thomas Ost-Prisco, who is leading the prosecution, relating what Carter told him in a recoded interview at the West Goshen Police Department on Aug. 8. “The second shot, he aimed and shot him in the head.”
Maurer emphasized that Carter told him that he believed Jennings might have been pretending to have been hit and was still moving after the first shot was fired. “He might be trying to trick him,” Maurer said of Carter’s statement. So he stepped forward almost directly over Jennings body and fired decisively.
Testimony at the sometimes contentious preliminary hearing did not reveal whether Jennings had died from the first shot that Carter fired or the second. Bu according to Chester County Detective Keith Cowdright, who attended Jennings’ autopsy the following day, the victim had indeed suffered two gunshot, one in his left cheek and one to the right side of his face.
Carter’s attorney, Joseph P. Green Jr. of West Chester, pressed Maurer on whether Jennings had been on his own property when he was shot, or whether Carter had told him that he believed Jennings was moving towards him when he fired the second time. Carter’s previous attorney had contended that carter acted in self-defense in the incident, and that Jennings — with who he had been arguing heatedly with just moments before — had a hunting knife with him when they confronted one another.
Maurer said that Jennings’ body was on his property when he died, although he could not place the property line specifically, and that Carter had not mentioned seeing Jennings move towards him when he fired. He said Carter told him only that one of Jennings’ hands was moving before the second shot.
Ost-Prisco did not comment at the end of the hearing. Green, on the other hand, suggested that the case would be tried at Common Pleas Court in West Chester. “We look forward to an opportunity to present all the facts at trial,” he said.
Carter, a ruddy-faced, portly man wearing a blue dress shirt and khakis, grumbled when asked by a reporter outside the Chester County Government Services Center, where Kraut’s court is located, what he thought of the charges against him. “Mind your own business,” he said.
He was returned to Chester County Prison after the hearing, where he has been held without bail since his arrest. A trial would not be convened until sometime next year at the earliest. Green is expected to file pre-trial motions asking that charges against his client be dismissed.
Ost-Prisco and Green sparred verbally during the hearing over whether or not Kraut should consider hear-say testimony from the police investigators assigned to the case, instead of the firsthand witnesses they interviewed. The pair have a past history of contentious courtroom confrontations.
Preliminary hearing rules allow the prosecution to present some testimony that would otherwise be ruled inadmissible as hearsay, but Green said the testimony OstPrisco presented — about statements from Jennings’ wife and the conclusions of a forensic pathologist, for example — went beyond the boundaries o what is permissible.
“This is a conscious effort (by the prosecution) to push the rules out of the way,” Green told Kraut at one point.
“No, these are the rules. The rules are set up this way,” argued Ost-Prisco.
Kraut generally allowed Ost-Prisco to have the police witnesses testify about statements from other witnesses, but did strike some evidence about whether carter’s DNA had been found on the knife at the scene. Green had pointed out that the witness — Chester County Detective Christopher Bucci — did not know the qualifications of the DNA technician who told him that only Carter’s DNA had been found.
According to authorities, the defendant and victim were next-door neighbors. Police had been called to Box Elder Drive the evening of Aug. 7 at 7:50 p.m. because the pair were arguing, apparently over problems that Jennings had with the way that Carter was behaving around his son and other neighborhood children. Police resolved that dispute concerning cursing and backyard video recording.
Carter has a history of violent outburst and was prosecuted at one point for ramming his truck into the very house he was living in at the time of the shooting, which is owned by his father-in-law.
According to county Detective John O’Donnell, Jennings’ wife, Jill Jennings, heard the pair arguing outside the house sometime after midnight Aug. 8, when she had gotten out of bed and come downstairs to do some work.
The two men had confronted one another after Carter came home from a trip to the supermarket and found Jennings car blocking a parking spot in front of his house. He went inside, retrieved a handgun he owned, and walked outside to move his car.
“She said she heard what she described as elevated voices or an argument” between the two men,” O’Donnell said, describing an interview he did with Jill Jennings about 4 a.m. that day. She said the argument went “back and forth,” with her husband berating carter for calling kids names, and belittling Carter for living under his father-in-law’s roof.
“It was a back and forth name calling contest,” O’Donnell told Kraut. “Brooks was trying to make some progress, though. He said, ‘How can we make this work. How can we get along in the neighborhood.’ He wanted to get along.”
But then, O’Donnell said, Jill Jennings heard her neighbor dare her husband to come towards him. “Cross the property line,” she said she heard. “I want you to cross the property line.” Jennings did not know at that point that Carter had armed himself.
“She said she heard a shot, or a firecracker,” O’Donnell said. “She didn’t know what it was, but it alarmed her.” She looked out a front window to see her husband lying on the ground in a fetal position and Carter looking down over him.
“Clayton Carter had a gun in his hand and she saw Clayton Carter looking at her husband,” O’Donnell testified. “And he fired one more shot.”
Clayton Carter Iii